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March 18, 2011

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Indian author's take on Opium Wars

HISTORY often provides a rich vein of material for writers who have used their fictional characters in dramatic settings to reflect on a period or an era gone by. This particular genre of literature serves a two-prone purpose: revisiting the past while also attempting to put the old record into perspective.

Over the years, writers have argued that history is best told by literature, which serves to calm the hostilities between nations and people. The responsibility therefore falls on the writers to deal with ill-feeling and acrimony of the past.

Indian author Amitav Ghosh traverses a similar territory in his novel "Sea of Poppies," the first part of a trilogy that is set against the backdrop of the two Opium Wars (1839-1842 and 1856-1860) that were fought in China. He weaves a plot that takes his readers on a voyage from a small town in Ghazipur in north India to Canton (Guangzhou) and Calcutta (Kolkata).

The novel, which was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, is set for a Chinese-language debut in June. Ghosh is understandably keyed up about reaching out to newer readers.

"I am very excited," Ghosh says on the sidelines of the ongoing Shanghai International Literary Festival, which ends Sunday. "The Chinese translation of the 'Sea of Poppies' will be out around the same time the second part of the trilogy is due for release.

"I think this book - and the next book - will be of great interest to the Chinese readers ... It is really about them," he says. "My translator thinks it will have a wide appeal among the Chinese. I hope it will."

Ghosh was initially drawn into writing about the lives of Indian indentured workers in the late 18th and early 19th century, especially those from the northern states, but as he dug deep into historical records he discovered that "all roads led to opium."

The indentured workers came from the poppy growing regions of India who earned a pittance for their labor, while huge profits were made by their colonial rulers, who followed an aggressive policy in marketing their products into China.

Even as the Indian farmers were forced to give up production of useful crops and grow poppy, leading to starvation and widespread poverty, the British Empire pushed for the opium trade in China to sort out, what Ghosh calls, "the balance of trade problem."

"The situation is akin to what is happening today," Ghosh says. "It was Warren Hastings, the first governor-general of British India, who came up with the idea of exporting opium to China as a way to balance the trade imbalance."

Ghosh says that China under the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) vehemently opposed it and banned the import of opium, culminating in the two wars.

"The first shipment of opium arrived in China sometime in 1780," Ghosh says. "It was a small shipment but there were few buyers for it." But in the next 10 to 30 years, opium trade increased and turned millions of Chinese into addicts.

While the industrial revolution in Britain is hailed for the advent of capitalism, Ghosh, an anthropologist and an historian from Oxford University, says "much of the industrial revolution itself was funded by the opium trade."

"Today's drug trade is not even a tenth of what opium was in the 19th century," he says, adding that the casualties of capitalism were simply too staggering, and rather strangely, overlooked. He attributes much of that on the way the history of the period was written.

His audience was hushed as Ghosh insisted that there were complicit players in the nefarious trade both in India and China, pointedly dispelling notions that the conflicts were strictly only Anglo-Chinese wars.

"Unfortunately, the opium trade has received scant attention," Ghosh says. "That is because to a large extent the writings are still influenced by British institutions. It was a subject that India, too, was keen to forget," he says. "We see ourselves as some sort of a spiritual country while forgetting that much of today's India, and Bombay (now Mumbai) in particular was built on this trade."

The same is true of Shanghai as well. "It is ironical," Ghosh says, "that I am sitting now in the Bund, which has its foundations in the drug trade."

The acclaimed author of such prize-winning works like "The Hungry Tide" and "The Glass Palace" will soon join a growing list of foreign authors whose books are being translated into Chinese.

"For any writer it is a very exciting thing to reach as many readers as possible," says Ghosh. His works have been translated into almost 25 languages, including Burmese and Bahasa Indonesia.

"But this one is special, to be published in China is very special," he says.

Professor Guo Guoliang, who is translating Ghosh's 500-page odyssey into Chinese, is equally thrilled.

"The novel is of great historical relevance to China. It will help Chinese readers get a fresh look at what really happened during the Opium Wars and get a new perspective," he says.

"I'm sure the book will be well-received," says the Zhejiang University professor, who also has translated Thomas Hardy's classic "The Mayor of Casterbridge" and Joseph Heller's black comedy "Catch-22."

"This has been the most difficult I have translated so far," Professor Guo says.

"Amitav is a master storyteller. He deals with so many characters and so many incidents in the book. He tells the stories - personal, family, national - most vividly and touchingly ... His narrative power is superb.

"I hope that more books of Amitav will be made available to Chinese readers."

Meanwhile, Ghosh's fascination with China is ongoing.

"I have been traveling here for four or five years now. I enjoy coming here, seeing things ...

"It is an easy country to travel in and there are such amazing places to see. I will be coming to China a lot. I find it very interesting ... there is something different about it."


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